FIRST COW: FILM REVIEW
Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow tested me in a lot of ways. To be able to just sit and let the story on screen unfold at a pace more concerned with detail than moving the plot is not something I’m used to. Many call First Cow peaceful, but for me, it was more akin to restless. Finding peace is a learned skill, carved from time and patience.
First Cow tells the story of former baker Cookie Figowitz (John Magaro), who, after a long and laborious journey, finally arrives to Oregon in 1820. Cookie hopes to start a new, independent life for himself. By chance, he encounters a Chinese immigrant named King Lu (Orion Lee). The two instantly befriend each other, as they have an unspoken bond – one that is formed between two individuals who strive for a better future but whose hearts are too full for the societal structure they subscribe to. The two build a peaceful haven together, resting, tidying, making fires side by side. However, this haven is interrupted by the arrival of a lone cow, brought on by Chief Factor (Toby Jones), a wealthy English man on the settlement. Cookie and King come up with a seemingly simplistic idea: steal milk from the cow to make a profit. Cookie and King then use this milk to bake and sell "oily cakes” coated in honey, in hopes of making enough profit to buy their way to independence.
Eventually, Cookie and King’s oily cakes garner the attention of the Chief Factor himself, who doesn’t know that the supple milk of his cow is the secret ingredient. This unknown relationship is where the greatest tension of the film erupts; Factor’s cow is the bank where Cookie and King conduct their quiet heist. However, as viewers, we neglect to negatively characterize Cookie and King’s actions as stealing, but rather root for their efforts to reclaim a piece of an institution built to advantage those who have already reaped its benefits. Reichhardt’s not-so-subtle commentary on the way capitalism rests on hierarchies based on race, sex, and class reveal itself throughout the film.
It is difficult to dispute the beauty of First Cow, as its cropped, intimate shots of forests and the woodlands reveal an attentiveness to individualism even in a large ecosystem. Other reoccurring shots, such as the returning placement of the riverbed, ground the film, making Cookie and King’s world seem much larger than it is. Reichhardt excels at crafting this film’s simplicity. It’s more difficult to make a good tasting cake with just a few ingredients than plenty of them. Similarly, Reichhardt expertly places just enough elements in the film to craft a story, without leaving room for things that aren’t absolutely necessary. This is also the approach that Cookie and King take in an attempt to secure a prosperous future for themselves. Every night they sneak into Chief Factor’s yard to slowly and quietly milk the udder of the first cow. As unproblematic as their lives are, the two are willing to risk it all even for just a chance at greater wealth. They know they must try their hand at any opportunity that comes their way, no matter how small.
The opening shot of First Cow reveals a woman in present day wandering in the forest, and by chance, she stumbles upon two skeletons buried in the ground, curled together. This finding mimics the deeply moving relationship between Cookie and King, who happened to find each other at a time when both felt out of place. A chance encounter? Perhaps. A subconscious pull to search for a companion in a vast, open land? More likely. First Cow is a must see, especially during a time when many of us have realized we don’t need as much as we once thought to be content. At its core, the film takes you on a virtual trip to a quaint, simplistic forest through the eyes of an enduring friendship. And for me, that’s good enough.